Curtain set to rise on Jordan-Bryant

Masters at opposite ends of careers on same stage as Wizards meet Lakers

Pro Basketball

February 12, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

They are charismatic high fliers with megawatt smiles and corporate appeal who have rounded out their games to match their profiles, adding texture and championships to their resumes.

And to open the second portion of the NBA season, the Washington Wizards' Michael Jordan and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, the once and future ambassadors of the game, meet tonight in a nationally televised showdown in Bryant's back yard, Los Angeles' Staples Center.

Both players spent a fair portion of All-Star Weekend in Philadelphia trying to downplay the significance of the meeting - the first since Jordan emerged from three years of retirement - and they likely won't be guarding each other much, given that Jordan mostly plays forward for the Wizards and Bryant is a guard.

"What we have to understand is that Michael has six championship rings, and I'm not here to compete for individual honors or individual respect or whatever it may be," said Bryant.

"I'm here to win, and I'm here to win championships. So, even though there's a lot of hoopla about the individual matchups, I'm here to win championships."

There are other subplots to tonight's game, including Jordan's first game against Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the man who coached him to six titles when the two were in Chicago.

"It should be fun," said Jordan. "There will be a lot of emotions in the game, I'm pretty sure, because I respect him as a coach and I understand what he does as a coach.

"As a former player, if I can disrupt what his coaching may be ... it's going to be tough, because they're a very, very talented team. I look forward to it, the first time in a while. I'm pretty sure we're both looking forward to the challenge."

Meanwhile, the Wizards, who have not beaten the Lakers in Los Angeles since 1992, are looking to extend their remarkable first-half performance, which ended Thursday with a stunning, 108-101 win over league-leading Sacramento at MCI Center.

At 26-21, the Wizards have their best record at this point in the season since 1978-79, the season when they unsuccessfully defended the franchise's only title.

Tonight's game and the rest of the three-game Western swing that will continue Thursday in Sacramento and Friday in Phoenix will give the Wizards something of a measure of their progress, though they won't have to face Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, who missed the All-Star Game and is on the injured list with an arthritic toe.

"We're going to be playing the top teams in the West, and it will be good to really see where we are in comparison to those teams," said Washington coach Doug Collins.

"I sort of feel like I know where we are in the East, but the big thing is we're going to have to beat some of those Western teams in order to get into the playoffs. The one thing I feel good about is that our team plays well on the road."

Still, even with all the side stories floating about, the stage for the Jordan-Bryant matchup was being set before the competitors had even cleared air space in Philadelphia to head back to their teams.

Jordan has done as much as possible to deflect comparisons between himself and Bryant, going so far as to keep Allen Iverson from answering a question Saturday about how similar their respective games are.

All Jordan would do to acknowledge their similarities was to field a question about the fadeaway jumper that is so critical to their arsenals.

"At this stage, I use my head a little bit more than trying to jump and fade away," said Jordan. "If I can get a guy out of defensive position, maybe get a foul, I can fake that and go to the free-throw line.

"Sure, I may not have the same explosive fadeaway that Kobe probably has or Allen has or some of the other young guys have now, but I think I can use my head and shoulder fake and get to the free-throw line and make them pay that way."

Bryant, who, at 23, is 15 years younger than Jordan, has seen differences, too, in their styles.

"This season, people can really see how different our games are," said Bryant. "Michael has always been more of a guy who operates in a position where he can make one or two quick dribbles and explode to the basket or pull up for a jump shot.

"My role, since I've been in the league, has been very different, has always been that of a facilitator, a guy who handles the ball primarily. Those are two major differences."

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Los Angeles Lakers

Site: Staples Center, Los Angeles

Time: 10:30

TV/Radio: CN8, TBS/WTEM (980 AM)

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